Low-income people get high-speed internet for $30 under the new Biden program

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Twenty Internet service providers, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, have agreed to offer high-speed services at a massive discount to low-income consumers, the White House announced Monday, significantly expanding broadband access for millions of Americans.

The plan, part of the $1 trillion infrastructure package approved by Congress last year, would cost eligible households no more than $30 a month. The discounts plus existing federal Internet grants mean the government will cover the full cost of connectivity if consumers sign up with one of the 20 participating companies. The White House estimates that the program will cover 48 million households, or 40 percent of the country.

More than 11.5 million households have already applied for government subsidies.

The 100 megabit-per-second service is fast enough for a family to work from home, finish schoolwork, browse the Internet and stream high-definition movies and TV shows, the White House said.

“Fast internet is no longer a superfluous luxury. It’s a necessity,” President Biden said at the White House Rose Garden announcing the program.

Households may qualify for the grants, called the Affordable Connectivity Program, if their income is equal to or less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, a household member participates in certain federal anti-poverty initiatives — including Medicaid , Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, federal housing assistance, Pell Grant tuition, or free or discounted school meals — or if the household already qualifies for a low-income Internet service provider’s service program.

Consumers can check their eligibility for discounted service on: getinternet.govor by calling (877) 384-2575.

Biden has made internet access a high priority during his 2020 campaign and in negotiations for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, especially for rural America and low-income consumers. a 2021 research by the Pew Research Center found that while access to broadband, the most reliable form of internet connectivity, has increased among rural residents over the past decade, rural communities still lag far behind others in terms of service delivery.

About 7 in 10 adults in rural areas reported having broadband access at home by 2021, Pew found; the same percentage had a desktop or laptop computer. Eight in ten had a smartphone. Rates for urban and suburban households were between 5 and 10 percent better.

But in urban and suburban communities, the cost of internet services has long been a bigger obstacle than network access, experts say. That has prevented families from going online to access telehealth services, participate in educational activities or enjoy entertainment.

It has led some individuals to go to great lengths to access the Internet. Public education officials often speak of students sitting together in fast-food restaurants or coffee shops equipped with free Wi-Fi to complete assignments because they do not have an Internet connection at home. During the pandemic, public libraries set up stations for elderly residents to access remote healthcare, allowing patients to communicate with doctors but without the privacy many patients are entitled to, health professionals say.

“The cost of broadband is driving the digital divide,” said Chris Lewis, president and chief executive of the advocacy group Public Knowledge. “And that’s in all kinds of communities, urban, rural, suburban, you name it. … Look at the response during the pandemic to people who were angry that children in schools could not access broadband. That was not a national issue. That was a problem in every church. And even if a family could afford broadband and their kids go to school on broadband, they knew someone at their school, one of their kids’ friends, who wasn’t connected to quality broadband.”

Biden’s infrastructure package earmarked $65 billion to upgrade the country’s broadband network. Most of that funding goes to states for projects led by local policymakers, but there was a $14 billion pool set aside for Internet grants.

The discount program faces early hurdles because the households it is supposed to serve are not online and therefore more difficult to reach. The White House said it would work with other federal agencies, state and city governments and charitable organizations to spread the word.

But some experts were concerned Monday about the program’s longevity. By some estimates, funding for grants will run out by 2025, potentially leaving millions of families with a brand new monthly bill after three years of free or significantly cheaper service.

“If we’re going to subsidize broadband, we need to bring it down to $0,” said Christopher Ali, associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of the 2021 book. “Farm Fresh Broadband.” “For many families, even $10 a month is expensive. If we look at the numbers, there are more people who can’t afford internet access than people who don’t have access to a network.”

But the program raised questions from experts about how Internet service providers have priced their products. The discounts only apply to low-income customers, but providers often sell their products to other individuals at significantly higher prices. That raises issues over price transparency, experts said, even though Monday’s announcement is a positive step for increasing Internet access.

“Hopefully it will bring more customers to Comcast and AT&T and other broadband providers. That’s probably a good thing for them,” Lewis said. “Are they getting customers who are a loss leader to them or customers who make money for them? We don’t know because no one has studied pricing and competition in the market.”

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